Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dried Apricot & Cranberry Bread

Can anything be so elegant as to have few wants, and to serve them one’s self? – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Simplicity can be so "elegant," and cheap.

Cheap. That’s me... sometimes. Other times I’ll spend money like a drunken sailor. It’s odd the times my miserly instinct kicks in.

For example, the other day I was at the grocery store. Bread was on my list. But as I scanned the prices I couldn’t bring myself to put a loaf in my basket.

$3.99? For a loaf of bread? It’s patently obvious that man cannot live by bread alone. Man can hardly afford it. So then was the time to call on the wisdom of Emerson. I could make it myself.

Luckily, bread is easy to make at home. And infinitely cheaper. Except for the flour, but rationalize the cost of it. How many loaves of bread can you get out of the bag of flour... 

This is a really bad picture of my starter in the morning...
Obviously my coffee hadn't kicked in.
To make bread, all you really need is four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. That’s it.

I know that many of you “out there” will be saying you can’t make bread. It fails. There’s two important things that can make bread fail. One is your yeast, the other is your temperature.

Thing 1: To always have fresh yeast on hand, buy a cup or even more at a bulk food store, put it in a jar and stick it in your freezer. It won’t kill the yeast. it will start to activate the moment it hits warm water.

Thing 2: The water used to activate your yeast has to be *at most* 115°F. Any higher and you risk killing the yeast – something freezing couldn’t do. Proper temperature water is slightly warmer than the temperature of a baby's bottle. Or better yet, use a thermometer to test it.

If your yeast doesn’t proof (either too old or killed by heat), your bread won’t rise. It’s as simple as that. Normal room temperature will raise bread every time. Cover the bowl to keep it relatively dark, and don’t sit it in a draft.

I went one step further with this and made an overnight starter. It’s not necessary, but does add a bit of a nice rich flavour, sort of like a sourdough.

My bread recipe today is a bit on the “fancy” side for another reason, too – it has dried apricots and cranberries. In truth, I was going to make raisin bread, but I didn’t have any raisins, so I had to raid my mother’s pantry.

Such is life. Sigh...

Left: before first rise; right: after first rise.

Dried Apricot & Cranberry Bread
Time: 24 hours, or a little less  |  Yield: one large loaf
night before, starter:
1 cup water, 110°F
1 cup unbleached flour
1 tbsp yeast
1 tbsp sugar
next day:
3 cup flour
1 cup water, 110°F
2 tbsp honey (or sugar, brown or white)
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup dried cranberries
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp salt

The night before you want to make your bread, mix together the starter ingredients. Cover with plastic wrap and a towel and let sit until morning. By morning it will be a bubbly mass.

In the morning, add the remaining ingredients and stir well. It will be very wet and sticky. Remove the dough to the counter. Slap and fold the dough until it no longer sticks to your hands. This step will be very messy, but it will actually start to stick to itself as opposed to you.

Shape into a ball. Butter a bowl, place the dough in it and proof until doubled in size.

Left: before second rise; right: after. Easily doubled.
It possibly would have risen even more.

Once doubled, scoop out onto the counter and knead for about 2-3 minutes. Generously butter a 5x9 loaf pan. Shape the dough into a log, place in the pan and let it rise until doubled again. Tent a plastic shopping bag over the dough while it rises.

For a soft crust, rub the top with butter. It's optional.
Just before you are ready to bake the bread, preheat the oven to 425°F. Make sure the oven rack is in the centre of the oven. Place a pan of water on the bottom rack while the oven heats. 

Bake the loaf for 35 minutes. Remove the water pan after the first 5 minutes. The loaf is done when nicely browned and sound hollow when tapped with your fingers.

Rub the top of the loaf with butter if you want a soft crusted bread.


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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Chicken Paillard with Peach Arugula Salad

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains. Diane Ackerman

This year, summer seems to have been fleeting. Where has it gone? 

You can feel a change happening. It’s dark much later in the morning, and sundown much sooner. There’s also that “something” in the air, that je ne sais quoi that is the harbinger for sweaters and jackets, and leaves turning red.

I don’t want it to come any sooner than it will, but it is unmistakably there. The sun is not quite as “hot” as it was just a few weeks ago.

We are now into the second half of August and, except for a few notable exceptions, I don't really remember this as much of a summer. It seems to have been just a blink of an eye ago we were celebrating Victoria Day in May. And now Labour Day is soon upon us. There has to be more summer ahead, right? The hot days will still be around for a while, fingers crossed.

In Nova Scotia's defence, we do have glorious, long autumns. Warm, languid days filled with sunshine. Or at least it better be. Our spring this year was cold, short and brutish.

This recipe is for those long, sun-washed days. Days when it’s still a little too hot in the house to have the stove on for long. These paillards only take about 2 minutes per side to cook. That’s pretty quick.

If you’re not familiar with the term “paillard” it’s an old French culinary term that’s falling out of use, being replaced by “escalope.” Basically, it’s pounding the bejezus out of a piece of meat until it’s very thin, so cooking time is very, very short. I like the older term. I like history.

Although these were cooked in a frying pan, you could as easily do them on the barbecue. But if doing so I would recommend using a sheet like one for veggies. The paillards are too thin to be efficiently handled any other way. And baste each side lightly with melted butter.

Regardless of cooking method, in the end these are fast, and a little impressive, for a warm day. So bring on summer, right?

Chicken Paillard with Peach Arugula Salad
Prep: 20 min  |  Cook: 4 min per breast  |  Serves 4
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
salt & cracked black pepper
1 tbsp butter
1 lemon
arugula for 4 salads
2 large peaches, or nectarines
120 g blue cheese
1 cup walnut pieces
salad dressing:
6 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp raspberry vinegar, balsamic if possible
pinch salt
2 pinches of cracked black pepper

Place one chicken breast at one end of a long piece of plastic wrap. Fold the wrap over the top and (gently) pound the breast to about 1/4” thick. 

Season the chicken with salt and pepper on both sides and re-wrap in the plastic. Set aside until ready to cook. Repeat with the remaining three breasts. 

The paillards can be made the day, or even a couple days, before and kept on a plate in the refrigerator.

Just before cooking the paillards, assemble the salad. Cut the peaches into easy to manage chunks and add to enough arugula for 4 salads. Crumble the blue cheese on top and toss in the walnuts. 

Mix the salad dressing ingredients in s small jar and shake well. Pour over the salad and toss well.

Melt the butter in a frying pan over medium high heat. Fry the paillards one at a time, for about 2 minutes per side, until browned slightly. After the paillards are cooked, squeeze the juice of 1/4 lemon on top of each one.

Serve with the salad and enjoy!


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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Thai Fresh Crab & Corn Risotto

If you never change your mind, why have one? – Edward de Bono

As we say in Nova Scotia, "some good"!

Sometimes it’s good to surprise yourself. Especially when good means “tasty.” Restaurant tasty. That’s how I would describe this.

Not all surprises work out this well. And it was completely without any real forethought at the grocery store. The recipe came about because I changed my mind.

Crab “clusters” (legs and body) are on sale this week for 1/3 their normal price at the Superstore. Local corn is also making an appearance (3/$1). With such finds I usually am inspired to make Chinese crab and corn soup. So I bought some with that in mind.

But, as I said, by the time dinner rolled around I changed my mind. What I wanted to make had lost all its appeal for some reason. Now there’s nothing wrong with crab and corn chowder, but it’s my stomach and I (too often) listen to what it tells me.

Regardless of my stomach's inner voice, I was still stuck with 2 ingredients, crab and corn. Thank goodness for Google’s search function. A quick look gave me many hits – mostly for crab and corn soup! An alternate that stood out was for Italian corn risotto. It sounded pretty interesting. There was no reason I couldn’t add in crab. 

But Italian and crab really don’t spring to mind as a common combo. Perhaps time for an exercise in fusion cuisine?

Just add enough liquid every time so
the contents is covered slightly.
So I trekked across the Middle East, over India and into southeast Asia for my flavours: coconut, chilli and ginger. To really get coconut in this I double-dosed it. It’s in both the oil and the braising liquid for the rice. Don't be fooled – coconut oil imparts a coconut taste. Sometimes this is advantageous, sometimes not. This time it helped make everything quite nicely coco-nutty.

If you want to make something unexpected for company I say look no further. This is a drop-dead delicious meal and pretty on the plate to boot. Perhaps a little green salad on the side to round things out...

Thai Fresh Crab & Corn Risotto*
Prep: 20 min  |  Cook: 20 min  |  Serves 4
250 g fresh King crab meat, shelled
1 tbsp coconut oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp crated fresh ginger
1 hot red chilli, finely diced (or 2 tsp dried chilli flakes)
1 cup Calrose rice
1 can coconut milk, plus enough chicken stock to make 1L
2 ears corn, kernels removed
salt and pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Clean the pre-cooked crab, if purchasing in clusters, and discard the shells. You should have at least 250 g meat.

Combine the coconut milk and stock in a pot and bring to a simmer. Keep warm.

Heat the coconut oil in a wide sauté pan. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chilli. Sauté until the  onion begins to look transparent. Then add the rice and sauté for 2 minutes. Finally add the corn kernels. Reduce heat to medium high.

Begin to add the hot liquid to the rice/corn mixture, using just enough to cover. Stir while it cooks. Do NOT go answer the phone or the rice may stick and burn.

Add more milk and stock as the liquid is absorbed, stirring. Continue to cook until the rice is “al dente” (still has a slight resistance when bitten). This may take a little less than the 1L or a little more. If you need more liquid, use hot water. 

This is the amount of liquid that should be left. Some, but not much. You should
be able to drag the spatula across the bottom of the pan and it remains dry.

The risotto is dry enough when almost all the liquid is absorbed by the rice. You need to leave some “creaminess” with the rice so it isn’t completely dry.

Taste for salt and pepper and adjust. Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the crab and cilantro. Serve immediately.

* You can use canned crab and frozen or canned for kernels, but why would you if fresh is available and affordable?


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Friday, August 1, 2014

Ginger Rhubarb Cordial, for summer patio fun

Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability. – Sam Keen

We are most definitely in the depths of summer, so some laziness must be called for. Speaking of laziness, here’s one I’ve been keeping in the hopper for quite a while, and I apologize. I made this about a month ago.

You can probably still find rhubarb in the vegetable department of the grocery – most certainly in the freezer section. You may even be able to rustle up enough from your back yard, if you haven’t let your rhubarb go to seed.

Rhubarb is an easy-to-grow backyard plant. Many homes in city, town and country have a small patch somewhere. Some patches are decades old.

There’s even ornamental rhubarbs that can make quite a dramatic statement in the flower border. I wouldn’t recommend using an ornamental rhubarb for this recipe. Probably would be very dangerous. They’re relatives to garden rhubarb, not siblings.

Speaking of danger, there is one about the garden-variety rhubarb, too. Never eat the leaves. Rhubarb leaves contain oxalic acid, which in larger doses is poisonous. This means pets, too, so if fido or fluffy develop a penchant for rhubarb leaves call the vet (just to be safe).

I have posted a recipe for rhubarb liqueur in the past (2011), but this is for a cordial syrup. So for all you tea-totalers, you can easily add summer sparkle to soda and ice. 

If you’ve had a particularly stressful day or week, serve over ice with gin or vodka and soda.

You may want to double the recipe. It’s pretty good stuff...

Ginger Rhubarb Cordial
Prep: 10 min  |  Total time: 30 min  |  Yield: about 700ml
1-3/4 lbs rhubarb stalks (weigh them)
1-1/4 cups white sugar
1-1/4 cups water
1 lemon, zest and juice
3” piece of ginger, sliced
2 tsp citric acid

Wash and trim the ends off the rhubarb stalks and then cut into 1” pieces. Place in a pot with a well-fitting lid. You don’t want the liquid to evaporate away. Then add the sugar and water.

Cut the zest from the lemon and add to the pot, then squeeze in the juice. Don’t worry about seeds as the mixture will be strained later... Slice the unpeeled ginger into strips and add to the pot.

Place over high heat and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium and let cook for 10 minutes.

After cooking stir to ensure all the rhubarb is mushy and broken up. Stir in the citric acid and let sit until cool enough to handle. The citric acid extends shelf life.

Place a sieve lined with doubled cheesecloth over a mixing bowl. Squeeze the rhubarb through the sieve, pressing down to extract as much juice as possible. 

If you’re over-zealous and some rhubarb pulp makes its way into the strained liquid you can re-strain or leave it. It will add some “texture” to your drinks (like orange juice with pulp...).

Discard the remaining solids. Pour the juice into a sterilized bottle and refrigerate. Use as you desire in mixed drinks with soda or tonic. 

The cordial will safely last for one week, refrigerated.


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